Water “Rights” or Water “Privileges”

Oregon Public Radio had a story about the Deschutes River and its water flow problems. The Deschutes River which historically had one of the most constant flows of any river in the United States due to the abundance of springs that form its headwaters. The annual difference in high and low flows was about 6 inches.

However, in an effort to irrigate the desert, the river has been captured by irrigators who have constructed reservoirs to store water in winter, which is released in high volume in the summer months. As a consequence, the once nearly even flow varies radically throughout the year.

In the fall when the gates are closed on reservoirs, the flows dwindle to the point where many fish are trapped in side channels and die. Riverbanks are also exposed to erosion, including the sedimentation in the river.

By contrast in summer, the irrigators use the river channel as an irrigation canal sending high volumes of water downstream. This further erodes the banks and also disrupts the aquatic ecosystems.

The drawdowns harm the river’s once famous fisheries, and all but lead to the extirpation of bull trout, and is also harmful to Oregon spotted frog which was recently listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The changes to the river also harm other businesses that have grown in Central Oregon like fly fishing, river floating and other recreation, not to mention, greatly changed the water quality in what was once one of the clearest and cleanest rivers in the West.

The OPB radio spot talked about “water rights” of the irrigators as if these meant that ranchers and farmers could dictate water use on the river. What was not mentioned is that ALL water in Oregon, as well as in other western states, is “owned” by the citizens of the state. A “water rights’ is really a “water privilege.”

A water “right” is not a right to the water. All water is OWNED BY THE STATE’S CITIZENS.

A water right determines who gets the water and how much IF the owners of the water (i.e. you and me) decide to allow them to take the water.

Historically when many people in Oregon were dependent on Ag for their living no one questioned the idea of taking public water out of rivers for private use and profit. But today with many other people dependent on the water, this law doesn’t make sense.

However, the legal framework has not kept up with the changes in employment and expectations.

For instance, the Crooked River, a tributary of the Deschutes River, lost tens of thousands of trout when irrigators turned off flows from an upstream reservoir.

Prior to this event, the Crooked River was well-known as a major trout fishing destination with 8000 catchable trout per mile. After the drawdown, there were only 300 fish per mile. What happened? Did the irrigators pay any consequences? Nada.

Think how crazy this is. If you or I went fishing on the Crooked River and caught a few extra trout over the limit, we would be fined as poachers. But an irrigator can kill tens of thousands of the public’s wildlife with no consequences. And keep in mind that not only fish suffer, but all the other wildlife that depends on fish like osprey, bald eagles, otter, mink and so on.

Yet every fall when irrigators draw down the Deschutes what is the public response. Some conservation groups organize fish capture parties to find fish trapped in shrinking pools of water and put them back in the river. Why should anyone have to even do this? Why aren’t irrigators fined and charged for damaging public resources?

In part, this annual tragedy is a result of lax regulation and oversite from the state. Oregon, as well as all other western states, have a “Public Trust” obligation to manage the water for all citizens–which of course it is not doing due to the political influence of the irrigators.

Part of the reason irrigators get away with destroying our collective wildlife heritage is that few people know that WE own the water. Most of the conservation groups working on the Deschutes River do not want to mention this fact. They are afraid of the irrigators.

 Instead, their halfway “solution” is to get taxpayer dollars to build additional pipeline infrastructure for the irrigators so they use less water.

This is using tax dollars to help the bottom line of private businesses. It really seems to me that irrigators if they wish to use OUR WATER, must bear the real cost of fixing their irrigation canals to reduce the leakage and water losses so minimum flows are maintained—assuming we even allow them to take any of OUR WATER from the river.

Time to hold irrigators accountable for their destruction of our watersheds.



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  1. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Yes. Glad to read this.

  2. Isabel Cohen Avatar

    I’m sick of all the greed. It’s time to care about the fish and other inhabitants of our rivers and other bodies of water!

  3. Patrick Avatar

    Increase taxes on agricultural water withdrawals and they will reduce water consumption. The consumption taxes could then fund buyouts of water rights to increase river flow and habitat restoration. If it is a public resource,the public should get compensated

  4. Felice Pace Avatar

    In California one can and should file a Public Trust Complaint whenever irrigators substantially dewater a stream resulting in fish, which are a Public Trust Resource, being killed or harmed. Here’s the place to learn more: https://www.waterboards.ca.gov/waterrights/water_issues/programs/public_trust_resources/. On that page there is a link which takes one to the Cal EPA complaint page where one can file the complaint online.

  5. mike Avatar

    Conjunctive use does need to be addressed but the nature of water rights is slightly mis-represented in this story. The right to divert and utilize water is set by statute (law). The process for gaining such a right is likewise set by statute and further refined by regulation.
    The statute is the means by which the people “allow” water to be “taken.”
    The process certainly needs some “tweaking” but to toss out long-standing and (nearly) universally recognized abilities to use water for a benefit is not only irresponsible but also effectively impossible. Moving the boundaries of acceptable use is the mechanism of change, not revolution.


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner